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a sample of things to come
(by jonathan miller)
summer 2000

in its dazzling array of guises - techno, house, hip-hop, trip-hop - sample-based electronic music (aka electronica) is, by its very nature, a genre born the recording studio and tailored for the dance floor. with samples. sequences, and loops being the tricks of the trade, live musicians don't necessarrily seem a prerequisite for success. on the contrary, successfully translating this technologically intensive music to the concert stage is especially difficult. many have tried; most have failed. one artist who has succeeded - although not without encountering a number of hurdles along the way - is toby marks, a 35-year-old englishman better known as banco de gaia.

to be fair, marks's music isn't entirely electronic. he's both an accomplished producer and guitarist, and consequently he brings a fair degree of "real world" musicianship into the rich musical melting pot that is banco de gaia. nevertheless, marks's music is heavily sample based, so his wealth of onstage experience should prove illuminating to anyone planning to take his or her synthesizers and samplers on the road. but first a little background.

world bank

after several years in the public eye in britain, marks - whose five cd releases include the 1994 independent chart topped maya and his latest effort, the magical sounds of banco de gaia - has, understandably, grown tired of explaining his recording pseudonym. (for some of his blatantly tongue-in-cheek "explanations," check out his web site at www.banco.co.uk.) on a serious note, marks points out that banco de gaia is "an international translation of 'world bank'" - which happens to be the long-standing name of his private recording studio. in celebration of its recent relocation to the historic, rural county of somerset in southwestern england, the studio has been rechristened "new world bank".

marks's rich, layered, diverse, and often danceable music uses all manner of exotic audio elements that he deposits into his beloved collection of roland samplers, which consists of an s750 and s770 (each filled with 18mb of ram and attached to video monitors for editing purposes), as well as an s760. he then weaves this material into the intricate electronic sound that is instantly recognizable as banco de gaia.

of course, there can also be a downside to technology, a conundrum that is not lost on this reflective musician: "it's definitely possible to have too much kit [gear]," marks concedes. "but the catch has always been that i love having the freedom and the possibility of these huge, pseudonym-phonic soundscapes - big, grand, multi-layered stuff. unfortunately, i'm a bit of a sucker for that; i'm not very good at leaving space. i just love sticking on more and more until a track can't take anymore."

band on the run

how best to perform his electronics-based music is an ongoing question for marks. initially he played solo, using samplers, synthesizers, and sequencers as his backup band. however, he found this arrangement not totally satisfying from a musical standpoint.

"by the end of 1996 I was getting really bored of standing on stage pressing buttons," marks recalls. "there's nothing wrong with that; it's just that i was becoming frustrated and missed playing an instrument. i'd been playing guitar for 15 years before i started getting into any of this. also, i realized that if it's just me on stage, then there's a whole load of gigs I would never get."

marks found that the one-man-band concept had run him into a creative wall. "it seemed a real shame having these limits put on what I could do, just because banco de gaia was only one person," he says. "the final clincher was when I was writing the big men cry album; the track celestine had dick parry [of pink floyd's dark side of the moon fame] playing saxophone all over it, and when I was pondering its live presentation i thought, 'how am i going to do this one? it will be really weird to have a sample of a two-minute sax solo with me standing there on stage pressing buttons,' because it was such a large chunk of live playing, it seemed essential to have some of these live parts played live rather than sampled."

the quandary that marks faced was how to come up with the best combination of live musicians and technology that would successfully replicate the banco de gaia material in a musically gratifying way. his solution? a five-piece live band.

five becomes three

"i sat down and worked out how best to do it," marks recalls, "and came up with the idea of the five-piece band, which covered a lot of options - flute, wind synth, saxophone, percussion, and so on. i really enjoyed it: and it was quite a privilege to play with such good people." but the reality of maintaining a large ensemble presented problems of its own. "we did that for two years in '97 and '98, but there were a lot of hassles making sure that four session players, plus three crew, were all available at the same time. for example, we got offered a one-off gig in singapore with womad [world of music, arts, and dance, a british arts organization], but we weren't able to do it because it would have cost about 15 grand to get everyone and everything out there. and so, while on the one hand having a band was in theory opening up possibilities for gigs that i wouldn't have been offered on my own, in reality it was economically and physically impossible to do them."

something obviously had to give. this new performance quandary warranted a different solution: banco de gaia became a trio, with marks himself doubling up on guitar and keyboards, along with bassist ash hopkins and drummer ted duggan. "when I started thinking about how to present the new album live, i came to the conclusion that it didn't make sense at this stage trying to maintain a five-piece," he says. "it was much more a practical decision than a musical one." the trio was the solution - if only for the time being. "i think it quite suits the album as well. the immediacy of that very compact and focused three-piece unit is quite powerful ... [although] i must admit that it was not as satisfactory as i'd expected."

finding the best way of performing his music live remains a work in progress for marks. "i really don't know where to go next. i can't take on the load of a bigger band, but i can't imagine going out solo again, either. i guess i'll have to see where the next album takes it."

economics of scale

along with the change in lineup has come a downsizing of marks's onstage equipment setup. gone is the colossal arsenal of gear he once carted around, including synths, samplers, and a computer running sequences from the stage. instead, he now uses a solitary alesis adat xt20 to play back an 8-track submix of the sequenced synth and sampler parts that accompany his songs. again, marks's thinking makes for sound fiscal reading: "the reality of what i was doing before - dragging around 56 channels of mackie desk; 30-odd u of rack equipment, including three samplers; about a thousand kilos of equipment - was that i couldn't move it on my own," he laments. "i always needed other people to help me, to the point where it was very costly in terms of money, energy, and time."

there can be no doubt that the adat has succeeded in its mission of lightening marks's load considerably - in more ways than one. yet, as a traditionally old-school musician, marks still has nagging doubts about its onstage legitimacy. "it's a weird one for me," he admits, "because i still don't like the idea of playing along to backing tape. maybe it's a generation thing. i grew up in the '70s - and when people started using backup tapes, it was very much frowned upon as a cop-out."

one particularly troublesome banco de gaia concert helped marks make up his mind once and for all to use tape. "someone had parked an oil-based smoke machine on top of the samplers," he reports, "and during the penultimate tune the drummer leaned over and shouted, 'oy, the click's gone!' he was playing along to a click track, and it had stopped working, so he had to finish off playing along to the stage monitors, he managed to do it, but god only knows how he did!"

it was a nightmare of 21st-century proportions. "gradually, throughout that last tune, more and more samples were triggering wrongly; notes were holding, and things were coming out an octave higher than they should have - or sounds were there that weren't supposed to be. obviously, some really weird midi problems were occurring, so we limped to the end of the last tune and got away with it. then we came back on stage to do an encore, and i just couldn't get anything to work. it made me realize that if the same thing had happened at the start of the set, we would've had no gig for that night. we'd been very lucky up until that point; we'd never had a disaster whereby we couldn't perform. so this was obviously a warning."

"midi-fied" alarms, marks's renewed six-stringed love affair with his trusty fender stratocasters also helped sway his decision regarding the live-computer-sequencing-versus-backing-tape dilemma. "because i'm playing guitar on stage more than anything," he says, "i ended up starting a computer and it would run a premixed set, which is the same as using tape. the way i was mixing was to send everything down to an 8-group submix and then send that to the front of house. so i figured, 'well, why not record that onto an adat in the studio and send that to front of house?' it would be exactly the same from everyone else's point of view; it just means i won't have all this gear. so i did - and it does feel weird because it is a backing tape now, but then that's only a technicality."

changing tack, marks concludes: "i think there was a time i was playing live on my own when there was probably a certain value in having a lot of equipment on stage - especially at some of the bigger gigs where there was a big stage, which is difficult to fill with one person. But now that three of us are on stage, it's like a rock band. we don't need all the props. the downside is that it's harder to change the set on the fly; i can't just skip a tune as easily as i could with the computer."

consistent with his general reduction in gear, marks's own keyboard rig has been considerably slimmed down, tool it now consists exclusively of non-programmable, knob-laden, monophonic analog synthesizers, including a roland juno 6 polysynth, a roland sh09, and a sequential circuits pro-one. marks's explanation for his choices is refreshing: "i'm not a trained keyboard player," he smiles, "so there isn't a great deal of point in my standing on stage playing keyboard parts that the sequencer [or the adat playing back a recording of sequenced parts] can quite happily manage. i've never really done that, but what i do live is fiddle around with the bleeps, burbles, and whooshes - the improvised sound-effect side of things. obviously, those are the instruments best suited for that."

coming to america

having recently completed his second north american tour within a year, marks evidently feels that his future musical fortune lies increasingly state-side: "i've felt for a while that potentially things could go much bigger there than here [in the united kingdom]," he says. "obviously, it's a much bigger market. in america, it's the gap between the scenes that people are looking for. someone said that when jerry garcia died, there was suddenly a huge hole. the number of grateful dead fans who'd been buying every single bootleg and going to every possible gig was phenomenal. it was an industry in its own right. all those people are now looking for something else. there isn't a band like the dead anymore, but the modern equivalent is - and i don't think that what I do is like the grateful dead - probably in the electronica field. that's where you'll find the contemporary equivalent of what the dead were doing - touching the same nerve. so, potentially there is a very large audience that we might be able to reach in the states."

a tall order perhaps, but toby marks has been garnering good press in the united states, and the tide may be turning in his favor.

banco de gaia's simplified live setup

alesis adat xt20
alesis quadraverb
boss se70 multi-effects
cry baby wah-wah pedal
fender stratocaster (two)
mackie 1402-vlz mixer
roland srv2000 reverb
roland juno 6 synthesizer
roland sh09 synthesizer
sequential circuits pro-one synthesizer

  credits

jonathan miller is a british freelance writer in, well, england. he specializes in the "ancient art" of the high-tech music interview, and can be reached at jonathan.millermusicmedia@virgin.net.

clarification: ted duggan has been a drummer with banco de gaia since day one, not just when he had a live three-piece.

reproduced without permission from onstage (volume 1 number 3). to be used for private and research use only. thanks for the article ted!

copyright 2000-2002 gavin stok. all rights reserved